Author's Corner with Douglas Dowland, author of WE, US, AND THEM
We, Us, and Them

Welcome back to the UVA Press Author's Corner! Here, we feature conversations with the authors of our latest releases to provide a glimpse into the writer's mind, their book's main lessons, and what’s next for them. We hope you enjoy these inside stories.

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Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with Douglas Dowland, author of We, Us, and Them: Affect and American Nonfiction from Vietnam to Trump

What inspired you to write this book? 

I was drawn, like many others, to understand the rise of Trump and his impact on the nation. There was a fervor to his campaign in the rural part of Ohio where I teach: 71% of those in the county where my university is located voted for him in 2016 (and 75% in 2020). At the same time, it seemed to me that much of the discourse I was reading about Trump’s rise involved tying that rise to particular national feelings without really interrogating how those feelings became tied to him. So I wanted to explore that tying together: how the words and stories that create such fervor come with it a tunnel vision answer to the question “What is America?”, a question that has been the focus of my research for quite a while.

What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book? 

As much as I started with Trump and, in a way, worked backwards, what I would like readers to take away is that Trump’s rise is not about conservatism alone but part of a broader fervor of national feeling that has persisted since the Vietnam War, a fervor that transcends any one ideology or party. The left, the center, and the right all participate today in a worrisome construction of “we,” “us,” and “them.” Being more careful with the use of the word “we” than the authors I study, I’d be inclined to say that nowadays Americans presume that a more fervent reading of the nation is the more honest—when I’d be inclined to say it’s less so.

What surprised you the most in the process of writing your book? 

Something you quickly learn in affect studies is how intensely someone can respond to your work. When I initially outlined this book, I found that some readers saw my claims (particularly about the rise of the “alt-right”) to be so common sense that they suggested I had no angle worth writing on at all. Conversely, I also found that some readers saw my claims about their favorite authors as misrepresentative and ridiculous (and they too suggested that I had no angle worth writing on). So I hope that in each chapter of this book I’ve managed to be, as one of my peer reviewers wisely put it, “productively counterintuitive” in my arguments as I try to outline the persistence of this particular kind of national fervor.

What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?

I have to say that it was a great pleasure to slowly parse the columnist David Brooks’s epic meltdown at a delicatessen that forms the introduction to the book. His (some would say) trademark generalizing is on full display, a jarring combination of hysterical handwringing and cured meats. And later in the book, in my chapter on Hunter S. Thompson, it’s amazing how potent his bilious insults can be. You’ll never look at some of the twentieth century’s greatest or worst politicians — or national landmarks — the same way again.

What’s next? 

I am beginning a project that studies affect and its rhetoric not in the nation but in the body. For several years, I’ve taught an introduction to medical humanities course which eventually became the foundation for a minor at my university. The course texts are leading me to think about how the rhetoric of medicine carries with it certain emotional intensities that shape how health care works for both patient and practitioner. That said, the question “What is America?” is one that never has one right answer, and I will be keeping an eye, for many years to come, on books that try to answer it for us.

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